Then and now: sailing Baja nine years later

Sailboats in San Juanico Baja

What’s your favorite place? We’ve heard this question a lot lately. Jamie’s current answer to the “best place” question is that he has 100 top ten favorites. His point (aside from the impossibility of picking just one) is that there’s context needed. Some places are favorites for the delicious food. Others are unforgettable for their Looking back red rocks Bajaunderwater life. Still others for the cultural experiences and learning opportunities they offered. There are so many things to love about a place! The point is made as a family when we each rattle off a few that are top of mind, and quickly finding a dozen “favorites.” And yet what names seems to crop up among multiple family members during that flood? Mexico, and especially, our summer of sailing inside Baja.

Did you ever revisit a beloved haunt from your past, only to find it tarnished compared to the shiny perfection of your memory? That’s what I worried about as we returned to Mexico’s Sea of Cortez. Our family spent many months there in 2009. Then, as now, we pointed north to mitigate risk during hurricane season.

Returning after so many years and so many countries, would we determine our sophomoric highs to have been idealized in hindsight? Would the drama perceived by our new-to-cruising eyes now seem mundane? Or would familiarity offer comfort?

Northbound from Panama this spring, an old familiarity gradually returned to stars overhead: the Southern Cross still visible, but Orion holding more accustomed placement as our latitude climbed.

Tide pool exploring near San Evaristo, 2009; Totem in the background

We sailed along Baja’s rugged and unforgiving landscape for a month recently, finding a mix of familiar comforts and new discoveries before hauling Totem for our summer away. The kids have mixed memories of our past miles here; Siobhan was only five years old, and her recollections are fuzzy. For Jamie and I, many of our memories center around exploring a new landscape with our children, learning alongside them. Returning with young adults, the everyday dynamic shifted significantly. Our every day life had centered on caring for littles; now it included partners in our adventure as hands-on crew.

Niall at the helm: anchoring in Puerto Don Juan, 2018

The landscape rang familiar for all, even Siobhan. Pictures from nine years ago could as easily have been taken last month. The wildlife, from dolphins to whales to spectacularly diving pelicans: the same.

Anvil with wings looking graceful before splashdown: pelicans at Isla San Francisco

Everyone remembered “the frosting rock” in Los Gatos. Everyone wanted to climb the buttery-smooth looking sandstone cliffs now just as much as they did in 2009.

Totem’s junior crew scrambles up the face in 2009


This time, it didn’t feel quite as daunting to explore with our crew’s longer legs.

Climbing up the frosting rock, Los Gatos, 2018

A skip north in Santa Rosalia the bacon-wrapped were just as delicious, but maybe a little easier to get a mouth around for some.

Niall in 2009 and 2018, Santa Rosalia

Back in 2009, the needs and limitations of young children kept our activy range in a tighter radius: an afternoon on a beach, a walk into town. Our teens make it easier to roam further afield. “How about we try to climb that volcano?” “OK!”

Digging on a beachy afternoon near La Paz, 2009

Hiking Isla Coronados, 2018

A return trip never seems as long as the outbound journey to a new destination. So it feels on our return to the Sea of Cortez: the milestones of points and islands and fishing villages may have been buried in distant memory, but flew by with familiarity this time around. It took the edge off our need to press north, to haul and make our way north for a shorebound summer.

This stretch was eased by familiar faces. In La Paz we caught up with the Boren family from Third Day, a boat we’d shared many anchorages with way back when. Rich now runs CruiseRO watermakers from Cruisers Supply, a shop in one of La Paz’s nicer marinas with the bits and services cruisers want. Rich knows La Paz well and introduced us to gastronomic delights at the spectrum extremes: from street tacos carved off  the al pastor spit, curbside, to serrano ham carved by the ounce in a foodie hideaway.

Amy and Jason (Third Day) help Mairen bury Niall on the beach – La Paz, 2009

Up the coast a ways, former cruiser Jesse (an unforgettable part of our past Baja experience) drove us well inland to experience the whispering history of Misión San Francisco Javier, a 17th century mission halfway across the peninsula and unreachable for us otherwise… breaking on the return trip to try flying drones through the dramatic canyons of the mountains.

Any misgivings about how we’d like Mexico on coming back have faded, but it was these and other members of our cruising family made that return feel more like homecoming. Now there are places we can’t wait to revisit, friends new and old to meet up with, and a whole lot of street taco exploring to do when we head back to Totem this fall. And then, from that base of familiarity, to do what we love most: reach out and explore to find what’s new to learn from, while seeking ways to contribute. Ultimately, “favorite” places don’t matter nearly as much as making the most of the place you find yourself: we’re just that much luckier that Baja has so much to offer.

Two girls. Two burros. 2009.

Holiday gifts that cruisers want

Paddling in Guadeloupe

As avowed minimalists, this feels slightly awkward putting a post of holiday gifts together. But the reality is that there are useful needs to meet in a life afloat. This peek into what works hopefully aids those anticipating a similar path: a personal look what’s worked for us, and what’s on our wish list, as idea fodder for gifts to the the sailors in your life. It’s organized into four angles:

  1. Best additions to Totem this year
  2. Wish list: functional gifts
  3. Wish list: what the crew really wants!
  4. Especially for kidsThe Great Kayak Debacle of 2016. Weighing pros/cons, we picked the durability of a fixed board over a space-saving inflatable. A shorter (10’) Jimmy Styx model (year-end closeout!) is right-sized for our humans and has provided hours of fun and fitness. Siobhan paddles in front of Totem, photo at top.
  5. Underwater dome lens – talk about bang for the buck. Only $50 to get some of my favoritest pictures ever. Just fit the GoPro inside and swim! It’s so flippin’ cool to have split images with above/below water…like this one showing Totem  floating in crystal Bahamian water while a nurse shark dozes on the sand below.
  6. Pic made possible with a dome

    Pic made possible with a dome port lens over GoPro. Me on deck, Jamie in the water; Staniel Cay, Bahamas.

    • Winches – Jamie likes to fondle our new Andersen stainless steel winches. No, seriously. Aside from the fact they are incredibly sexy mirror-finish stainless, the engineering of these makes them a better mousetrap, starting with guts that require less maintenance. Ribs on the drum don’t need as many wraps for sufficient friction, and they’re kinder to lines than conventional drum texturing. Jamie is all the warm fuzzies from that ribbed drum. I kinda want to get a lascivious picture of him with one.
    • Mantus scuba– we used to wish for dive gear on Totem, but it never made sense; a mix of upfront cost, equipment x 5 crew, limited space, and just not being die-hard divers. But we do really like getting underwater…a lot! Adding a pair of Mantus tanks has been perfect. Good fun for more marine exploring beyond our freediving skills, plus peace of mind as added safety equipment (invaluable if an anchor fouled below freediving depth / hang time capability).
    Kids dive with Mantus scuba

    Kids dive with Mantus scuba. There’s that dome port lens again too!

    • ACR ResQLink+. This personal locater beacon (PLB) was added to our safety kit for taking off to the Bahamas and beyond. My worst nightmare is losing on-watch crew overboard; I still worry when Jamie’s on watch and I’m “sleeping” off watch – these help me actually relax, knowing he’s basically attached to an EPIRB.
    • Drone – we picked up a Phantom 3 pro during the post-holiday-sales last year. I know, have been lame about sharing the footage (will provide room & board on Totem for anyone who can train us up!) but – WOW. The images are amazing! I love the bird’s eye view it offers of our life afloat! New Years Resolution: learn editing and share some videos. I’m not kidding about hosting someone who can school us! (Aline are you reading?! 😊 )
    Dakity bay Culebra Puerto Rico anchorage

    Culebra, Puerto Rico

    • Dinghy. When our trusty Avon finally gave up (well, it was 19 years old) in Thailand, the Highfield we replaced it with was… suboptimal. Not big enough, didn’t ride as well. A dinghy is one of the most frequently used bits of gear on board so we felt the gap. The 10.5’ AB (aluminum, double floor, bow locker) we picked up at Tradewind Yachting Services in Nanny Cay in September is AWESOME.
    • TOTEM shirts! New earlier this year, we adore these super-soft, organic cotton shirts and LOVE seeing people wear them. If you order Totem gear (Ts, caps and a hemp market bag too), send us a picture!Show your (neutral, water-based) colors with a yummy soft Totem Tshirt!

      Show your (neutral, water-based) colors with a yummy soft Totem Tshirt!

II. Wish list: practical

The next set… well, they aren’t exactly sexy holiday gifts. But the way our family looks at the world is in more practical term (I just realized how crazy that probably sounds to a lot of readers- yes, chucking convention to live on a boat with no fixed address is very practical. Really!): these are the practical wish-list expenditures. Right now we’re saving all our pennies to transit the Panama Canal but; some of these we expect (chaps, shade) others are less likely.

  • Dinghy chaps. Fabric covers fitted to the hypalon tubes extend their life by preventing chafe and reducing UV exposure. These are labor intensive and custom made, haven’t rationalized this expense just yet.
  • Outboard. Dinghy theme lately? Our outboard has been struggling for over a year, something that dependably gets a full load on a plane would be sweet. This 15hp Yamaha would do us right.
  • Repaint Totem’s hull. It’s so beat up, the guys working in the shipyard in Grenada were laughing at us—all in good fun—and asking if they could give her a makeover! Hey, there’s a dugout canoe associated with almost every ding, those are good memories…OK yeah it would be nice to have a pretty boat again.
  • Cockpit shade. We have an AWESOME, pretty new (2016) bimini frame (thank you to the great guys at TurboXS!)…but it still lacks the whole fabric-shade-that-attaches-to-it part. It will be really nice to get the last mile of this addition completed.
  • Sailrite. We’ve gone back and forth on these durable sewing machines. Cons: machines need to be used to stay workable; they are heavy, and they take up a chunk of storage. But in the Pro column: Jamie could do a lot with one, like dinghy chaps and cockpit shade! He’s a sailmaker, used to be a hands-on in the pit guy and knows his way around a pro machine. Our M.O. to date: Jamie fixes other cruiser’s Sailrites that have stopped working after languishing in a locker by bartering for usage to get a project done.
Making our dodger soft sides in Jacksonville: thanks Patty!

Making our dodger soft sides in Jacksonville: thanks Patty!

  • Countertops. The formica installed in Thailand, unfortunately, is not good. It’s a long story. But the formica is nearly worn through, the trim wasn’t done right, and a bunch of other stuff. For the Someday files. Solid surfacing would be so dreamy!
  • Solid state external drives. The movable parts on hard drives, in computers and external drives, have shorter lifespans with the small constant motions of a boat. SSDs would be less prone to failure. The multiple of expense is unfortunate (and almost rationalized by failed drives!). The only downside: external SSDs are mostly small, so you’d need a bunch to accomodate all the photo and video files a family accumulates. Sample: this Samsung 2TB drive, ~$800.

III. Wish list: just for fun

What’s your heart’s desire? I asked everyone on board to contribute their “wish” gift idea for something they have zero need for, but a dose of desire. This turned out to be difficult: we are pretty good at being satisfied with what we have instead of craving what the boat next door has! But there are some great ways to be indulgent on board. The top five are our personal picks, the rest are from family brainstorming.

  1. Niall: PADI dive certification. (shhh: I think we figured out how to do this affordably enough in Bonaire next month! He doesn’t read the blog – don’t spill the beans anyone!!)
  2. Mairen: horseback riding. (still with the experiences. C’mon Mairen it’s about Stuff! She never got beyond “more art supplies then?”)
  3. Siobhan: a puppy. KIDDING. Except she wasn’t. Her BATNA wish is to have any book she wants for a year. Qualified with “you know I use the library mostly.” People, she reads a LOT. Thank goodness for ebook loans from our hometown library!
  4. Jamie: Code zero with a continuous line furler on a sprit. Because the sailmaker’s boat is a little bit like the cobblerss kids… often wanting. Here’s why Jamie thinks this is a winner sail for cruisers.
  5. Behan: fancypants freediving fins, and lessons to go with them. (As long as we’re daydreaming, I’d learn from supermama and freediving champion Ashley Chapman at Evolve Freediving, with a whole- family lesson!)

More Totem crew wish-list picks that may generate ideas for giftees on your list:

  • Water-friendly drone. We’re having so much fun with the ‘regular’ drone, imagine one that lands on the water, or follows behind the dinghy – saltwater spray be damned?! This very cool looking Splash Drone 3 lands on the water and floats. Whoa. Or the QuadH2O: double whoa.
  • Mini home theater projector. We watched movies outside on the Delos deck once upon a time; I harbor dreams of hosting anchorage movie nights with a film displayed on a sail “screen.” One that’s bright enough, not to big, and doesn’t draw too much power, decent speakers…or 3 out of 4. Like this maybe (and wow, that’s a good price!)?
  • New computer. OK, not family but Jamie. The Toughbook that is our navigation computer doubles as his personal machine, but doesn’t play well with Windows 10. Newer models do. Still a big fan of Toughbooks for their durability on board.
  • Camera equipment. Better underwater shots with an Olympus Tough: the GoPro is awesome for environmental shots, but fails on macro, and those are fun to take underwater. Above sea level, I traded in all my Nikon gear to migrate towards Sony’s mirrorless a7 series, and will always be drooling over lenses.
  • A dozen Luci lights. We have one and it’s fantastic: indulgent wish list version,- how cool would a strand of them be hung tiki-light style around the cockpit?!the masks they got from Divers Direct in Florida this year, and they’re very reasonably priced (holiday sale: $40?!).
  • Beach fun: boogie boards and beach bocce are our favorites.
  • Fishing kit. Get kids their own tackle box, handline, a net to grab stuff that goes overboard; even a Hawaiian sling spear if they can handle it.
  • Field guides. Not kid books, but GOOD field guides. Identification of underwater life was a big hit from the time we started cruising with littles. Region-specific matters, I believe: the Gottshall two-book set is amazing for Pacific Mexico; DeLoach guides rule for the Caribbean: one for Reef Fish, one for Coral, one for, well, everything else (Reef Creatures).
  • Scooters.  Bikes are impractical; kids like wheels and folding scooters fit. Utility varies by cruising grounds (not a lot of roads in some oceanic regions!), but these are great get-around fun.
  • Arts & crafts. I’m not very crafty, so packaged kits like Klutz are perfect for me. Getting good materials will serve you later: these watercolors are richly pigmented and last a long time. Oragami, beading, or whatever! There are lists for this in Voyaging with Kids.
  • Chocolate. Yes this was on their list. Clearly these are my children.
  • Board games, cards. Our current favorite is Dread Pirate (thank you Sallianne and Doug!). Try cooperative games! Family Pastimes games got us started… Pandemic is the classic. This post about games cruisers play lists a number of other favorites on board.
  • Legos. Our lego days are over, but the kids know these are huge for the younger set.
sailboats anchored rafted drone Caribbean

Totem and Utopia, rafted up for Thanksgiving last week: because 1) better with friends and 2) drones rock!

Want more ideas?

Here are the Christmas gift posts from the last few years. They’re all aimed at cruisers, but each with a slightly different take:

  • Gifts that give a little more (2016). Focusing on sourcing gifts that contribute in some way to a greater good than just the Thing.
  • Gifts under $50 for sailors (2015). Keeping the costs contained! OK, there was one item over $50.
  • Gifts for cruisers (2014). Tried & true: fun, functional gifts that cruisers can use.